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Celebrity Travel: Go away with R.O. Kwon

Jae-Ha Kim, Tribune Content Agency on

In R.O. Kwon’s second novel “Exhibit” (Riverhead Books), the bestselling author of “The Incendiaries” tackles desire and sexuality with compelling and concise prose. Like Kwon, her protagonists are ethnically Korean. “I had the great luck of getting to visit Seoul a couple of times in 2023, both for work and for pleasure,” she said. “It’s the city of my birth, but I haven’t begun to spend as much time there as I’d like. Part of ‘Exhibit’ – toward the end – takes place in Seoul and that section was colored by my travels. It’s an intensely emotional part of the book – someone my narrator loves very much is in desperate peril. I cried a lot while writing it and still can’t read it without tearing up, which also feels colored by Korea.” Based out of San Francisco, Kwon stays in touch with her readers on Instagram ( and Twitter/X ( You may learn more about her book at

Q: Can you highlight a portion of your book that describes your characters?

A: In “Exhibit,” the narrator becomes obsessed with an injured principal ballerina, Lidija Jung – first professionally, then personally – and they begin an intense relationship that involves helping each other explore core physical desires. At some point, Lidija says that because she’s injured, she has more time than she’s ever had, some of which she can spend with Jin. But they’re both artists utterly devoted to their work. If Lidija weren’t injured … she’d want to stick to her own ballet-focused schedule, one that doesn’t leave a lot of time for other activities.

Q: When I return home from South Korea, I am filled with the kind of grief that can't be explained away with, "Oh, I wish I was still on vacation." You were three years old when you immigrated to the United States. Do you have any core memories of Korea from that time? I still remember my grandfather’s apple orchard and the feeling of being there with my family.

A: Oh, that apple orchard memory sounds so beautiful. I have just one flash of a memory of fighting my cousin. But what you’re saying about the grief of leaving Korea resonates with me. I’ve thought at times about the fact that I was born to people who, for many generations, lived on just that one strip of land – Korea. When I’m in Korea, it feels as though my body recalls the soil I’m made of, attending to a song in the wind, rain and foliage that I can’t quite find elsewhere.

Q: How do you separate work from vacation trips? Or do you work while you’re on vacation?

A: For a long time, it used to be true that I always wrote while I was on vacation. I thought it was best for the writing to essentially never take a day off. But in 2019, after the chaos that came with publishing my first novel, I’d been so preoccupied and busy that I promised my partner I’d take a couple weeks off from writing. I read a lot, ate, slept and went to galleries. And reading feeds the writing, of course – they can feel almost like the same activity – but I didn’t write. To my considerable surprise, it helped my writing that I’d taken a break. So, now I try to take time off from writing on any vacations. My partner’s very glad about this. I’m being more of a human being, he says.

Q: Do you speak any foreign languages?

A: English is technically my third language, one I began learning when I was almost four. Korean was my first language and it’s what I speak with my family. I also learned Mandarin when I was little, but don’t recall any of it. I speak French, Spanish and Italian with varying and deteriorating degrees of fluency. I don’t think I pick up new languages especially quickly, though. The Romance languages are so connected that learning one can lead relatively smoothly to the next. I hope to start Korean language lessons soon.


Q: Where would you like to go that you have never been to before?

A: Jeju Island in Korea. My parents had their honeymoon there. In their pictures, as well as the photos I’ve stalked online, Jeju looks so lush and gorgeous it almost hurts to look at it. I’m also fascinated by the haenyeo – women divers from Jeju who traditionally were the primary providers for their families. I hope to go there soon. But in the meantime, I channeled this obsession toward having two of [the characters from] “Exhibit” visit Jeju Island – a trip that brings harsh consequences.

Q: What are your five favorite cities?

A: New York, Seoul, Paris, Buenos Aires, Madrid. These are all places I’ve lived and worked, so each city is shot through with memories. Anytime I’m able to go back, it feels as though I keep running into ghosts of my past self.


(Jae-Ha Kim is a New York Times bestselling author and travel writer. You can respond to this column by visiting her website at You may also follow “Go Away With…” on Twitter at @GoAwayWithJae where Jae-Ha Kim welcomes your questions and comments.)

©2024 Jae-Ha Kim. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.




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